Earlier this month, I set out to answer the question, “What do child welfare social workers actually do?” I met Raquel, a kinship social worker at Lilliput Families, and learned how staff like her help children who need homes get placed with kin.
But kinship care is just one of Lilliput’s specialties. While the kinship program works mostly with families who have ties to displaced children, social workers in the resource family program work with families who want to foster or adopt, but haven’t yet identified a child to take in. To get a holistic picture of Lilliput’s team, I needed to learn more about the resource family program — and the staff that are involved with it.
I sat down with Cassandra Collins, a key member of Lilliput’s resource family program, at the agency’s home base in Citrus Heights. Cassandra works with resource families after they’ve completed the Resource Family Approval process, matching prospective parents with children who need homes. She’s oversees the final step in the adoption process, quite literally bringing families together for a living.
When I asked her why she chose social work, Cassandra admitted that she fell into her career somewhat unexpectedly. She initially planned on becoming a psychologist or psychiatrist, focusing her undergraduate studies on mental health. Before beginning a graduate program for psychology, she spent a lot of time with friends who were pursuing social work; she began reconsidering her career plans, and, not too long later, got a master’s degree in social work from the University of Maryland.
After grad school, Cassandra moved west and found Lilliput. She wanted to get licensed, and she told me that Lilliput offered their employees free supervision while they were working toward their LCSW designation, and even paid for the licensing materials. That was a huge incentive, especially for a recent graduate.
Since joining Lilliput, Cassandra has established roots in town and raised a family, but through each new life event, her passion for the field hasn’t waned. She continues to bring energy to the job, navigating each day as it comes.
When I asked Cassandra what her daily work looks like, she explained that her to-do list never looks the same from one day to the next. Sometimes she drives around the valley for back-to-back appointments, sometimes she stays in her office to do paperwork, and sometimes she gets a call that a child is in need of a last-minute placement. “It’s impossible to get bored,” she said. And she wouldn’t want it any other way.
An example of her job’s versatile nature can be seen in her schedule from that previous Tuesday. Cassandra drove to El Dorado Hills for three different home visits, then facilitated a birth visit, then spent the remainder of the day in the office. She uses her personal vehicle to get from appointment to appointment, no stranger to spending her day behind the wheel.
Though her general work hours run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Cassandra sometimes starts early or finishes late to accommodate families’ needs. It’s not common, but she’s also had to schedule weekend appointments before, mostly to sign adoption papers or conduct home visits.
But, surprisingly, the unconventional hours aren’t the most difficult part of Cassandra’s job — in fact, she told me that the flexible schedule allows her to find the perfect work-life balance. She can plan her day around other life events, as long as the work gets done.
The most challenging thing for a resource family social worker, Cassandra says, is keeping up with the constant change. The industry evolves, the counties she works with fluctuate, the rules that social workers follow are often updated, and the new RFA process has already been amended by the state several times. She not only has to adapt to each new change, but she has to help her families keep up, too.
I asked Cassandra if everyone has what it takes to be a social worker. She answered honestly: No. Why not? Social workers must possess several traits to juggle their work effectively, she said, including empathy, patience, and the ability to multi-task, self-regulate, set boundaries, and be open and honest. Social workers must also be careful to not enable people.
Though some people just aren’t designed for Cassandra’s line of work, certain traits can be developed over time; it’s rare for a social worker to have all of these qualities right out of college. Cassandra admitted that even after finishing school, she struggled with patience and found it difficult to let go of some control. Even now, she occasionally has to remind herself that she can’t control everything in her job, and that it’s OK.
Cassandra has been using her skills to match families for as long as she’s been at Lilliput. I asked if she’d ever want to try applying her skillset to a different role — after all, social work is such a broad field. “I know where my strengths are,” she replied. “This is my strength.”
And beyond that, her work is fulfilling. She has a motivation for going to work each morning: “It’s the kids. It’s watching the kids get into a stable placement,” she explained. “Those kids now have a chance.” Families aren’t required to check in with her once their adoptions are final, but many still do. After going through something so personal together, it’s hard to not keep in touch. Every letter, hug, Christmas card, and grad invite that Cassandra receives reminds her how blessed she is to do the job that she does.
Hearing Cassandra’s story not only shed light on Lilliput’s resource family program, but it helped me understand how important people like her are to children and adoptive parents everywhere.
So, what do child welfare social workers actually do? From what I’ve gathered so far, they fill out paperwork, they sit at courthouses, they explain confusing laws and procedures, they conduct home studies, they supervise child visitations, they provide training to parents, they place kids in homes, and they offer myriad support for caregivers, all with the goal of bringing families together and helping them thrive. I learned that it’s hard, it’s tiring, and it’s not for everyone... but it’s worth it.